The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

New Company Premiers an Ambitious Drama
Family Tragedy Rocks The Venue

             Actors Repertory Theater, a newly founded Hampton Roads company, opened its first production, a drama with a high degree of difficulty, at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk last night (Sept. 14), and it’s unlikely anyone in the small audience attending could fail to be impressed with the effort.
            ‘Night, Mother, which won a Pulitzer Prize for author Marsha Norman in 1983, is a surreal exploration of a suicide in real time. That is, in the span of the 90-minute play a daughter informs her mother of her well-planned intention to kill herself, then proceeds to carry out her intent without fast-forwarding the clock.

Eileen P. Quintin (L) and Anna Sosa
            Jesse, the daughter, played by Anna Sosa, has a full plate of troubles. An epileptic since childhood, a wife rejected and divorced, the mother of a grown son who is a thief and an addict, and a psychiatric patient to boot, she has decided with nearly unwavering conviction that she will take control of her sorry life by ending it.
            On the evening in question, a little after 8 p.m.—there’s a ticking clock on the wall of the set that reminds us—she informs Thelma, her mother, played by Eileen P. Quintin, that she plans to shoot herself that night with her absent father’s revolver, which she retrieves from a shoe box in the attic and loads with fresh bullets.
            Thelma, of course, doesn’t believe her at first, and most of the play consists in making it clear that Jesse is serious, revealing through a dramatic progression of beats that the inconceivable is, indeed, going to happen. Along the way the dynamics of a dysfunctional family group—more sorrowful than sordid in any striking way—are revealed in increasingly mournful tones until Thelma, having run out of arguments to stop Jesse, can only plead and wail in impotent grief outside the locked bedroom door behind which her daughter makes good on her resolve.
            The clock on the wall reads 9:40—”not even 10 o’clock yet,” as Thelma cries, hoping to prolong the discussion, as if it’s too early in the night for so rash an act.
            Sosa and Quintin are evenly matched in this tensely built drama, Sosa commanding a peculiar authority of organization and logic to Quintin’s bewildered and, at times, helpless incomprehension. At the core is a familiar theme—a mother’s resistance to her child’s decision to cut the bonds of habit and leave an unhappy home, with all the baggage of guilt and regret and words-not-spoken that flood the mind in the succeeding shock. The detail of suicide certainly raises the degree but not the brand of suffering that such family changes can bring about.
            Director Philip Odango has turned the cafe setting at The Venue 180 degrees, using the floor at the rear of the room, including kitchen and service counter, as playing area while seating audience not only on the floor but also in “balcony” seats on the stage. This serves the play perfectly, with rest rooms and light and sound booth, normally farthest away from the action, now immediately backstage.
            Set and lighting are simple yet elegant—a sofa and coffee table with an upstage sideboard stage left, a dinette with two chairs stage right downstage of the cafe kitchen. Ordinary cafe lighting supplements the theater’s gelled par lights with no disturbance of the illusion.
            Yet, as might be expected in a community production of this intensity and complexity, there are some problems. Quintin, despite a face with a striking and seemingly infinite capacity for wordless sorrow, cannot disguise her youth in contrast to Sosa, who seems the older. That Quintin’s character is in reality more innocent than Sosa’s only partially remedies the impression.
            Added to this is a structural problem, which may have to be laid at Director Odango’s door. The play has distinct beats or movements which should build in intensity as the inevitability of what is going to happen slowly unfolds. However, on opening night these beats did not so much build on each other as proceed similarly in tone and pitch, creating a certain monotony. This is understandable in a production of this kind which only had a month’s rehearsal, but it may fall short of the new company’s objective, as Odango put it in his welcoming curtain speech—to facilitate local artists in taking their art to “the next level” of achievement.
            (And surely the climactic gun shot needs to be a thunderous reverberation, not the indistinct “pop” that was barely audible opening night!)
            That said, Actors Repertory Theater has launched itself with an ambitious and worthy production which, not least among its cultural contributions, offers an opportunity for a community discussion of suicide as a legitimate option for a consenting adult. With that topic quite active among our military neighbors these days, its relevance can hardly be disputed.
            ‘Night Mother continues at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, VA, through Sept. 23, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For information and reservations, call 757-469-0337 or visit The Venue on 35th online.

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